What does the Digital Divide mean?


I feel it is important to have a deep, full understanding of a problem before you go about finding solutions to it. Since I will be focusing on Digital Divide issues and suggesting solutions for them, I need to know precisely what the Digital Divide refers to before I do anything.

What does the Digital Divide mean? Why does it matter? To whom or what does it refer to? How does the divide close? How would you know when its closed? What does the solution(s) look like? How can you tell if a solution is appropriate for a specific geographical area? How do you measure the successes or failures of a solution? Does the Digital Divide only apply to people or to organizations as well? What kind of people does the Digital Divide target? What kind of organizations?

I dont think it does any good trumpeting statistics that demonstrate low levels of computer literacy among the poor and under-privileged. Bottom line: computers are a luxury item. Theres no getting around that. Its a hard sell, and giving out computers willy-nilly to people who dont know how to use them in the first place just will not work. You just dont need a computer to be successful, happy, or give back to your community.

The Digital Divide does matter, but I feel there needs to be a consensus as to what exactly it refers to and how to best solve it. As I stand right now, the Digital Divide means the difference of communication-technology skillsets between the most adept users and all the rest. The name Digital Divide implies 'haves' and 'have nots', but in reality the Digital Divide is more like a pyramid. There are those at the top who actually engineer and advance communication technology, those in the middle who know how to effectively manuever the technology, those in the bottom who have little to no technological ability, and then those at the absolute bottom who are lost to us. To extend the pyramid metaphor, the point is not to bridge the divide but to square it so that everyone is at the same level.

The Digital Divide is a problem, but it is crucial that the problem of unequal communication-technology skillsets be framed appropriately. The term Digital Divide implies a means-to-an-end and not the end itself because technology is viewed as a way to introduce equality rather than being equality itself. This is a wrongheaded approach. Discussions on the Digital Divide need to be focused on issues of social inequality not technological inequality; access to public resources not access to computers; overall skillsets and abilities not just computer literacy; etc. When framed in this manner the Digital Divide becomes much bigger, much more socially relevant, and given its just importance. Computer literacy is a means to an end (this is a fact!), but it must be sold as an end if Digital Divide solutions are to be successfully initiated.

To solve the Digital Divide (or the Digital Pyramid to rid myself of the misleading alliterative term) means introducing skillsets, giving computers and free internet access to those who would actually benefit from it (preferably after successfully completing a free computer-literacy program), and enhancing non-profit capacity building and effectiveness through communication technology. If I could prioritize these, I would say non-profit capacity building is by far the most important as they touch more lives as a whole and conform to the social equality value more directly. Then followed by introducing computer skillsets through after-school programs because they touch far less lives but still conform to the social equality value. Finally, the giving out of computers and free internet because of the high cost associated with giving out computers to people and the even less amount of lives touched.

Alright, I feel better after that.

Comment from danielle martin on February 7, 2007 - 12:52pm

Hey Kevin,

Great musings for a new CTC VISTA! The whole "digital divide" movement is rich with all these questions and conflicts. I'd suggest you check out the writing of Henry Jenkins at MIT (http://www.henryjenkins.org/) - he's been talking about how there's no longer a digital divide (which I disagree with myself) but now it's a "participation gap", which sounds close to what you're getting at. I'd agree that the work needs to be less about just getting people access to technology, but giving them the skills and value to using it.

Anyway, I'm definitely thinking this would be a great part of the next Digest.


Comment from Peter Miller on February 7, 2007 - 4:17pm

Hey, Kevin, Danielle's given me a heads up about your post and since I'm in the middle of writing some funding inquiries for the project and how we contribute to "bridging the digital divide," looks like it'd be useful for me to check out your post to see what new highways and by-ways it points to.

…and a good post it is. The way you begin your penultimate paragraph is right on, and your final conclusion is a great reward. Lots of really good questions. Let me offer just a couple of contributions to the topic and check back in down the line to see how it's going.

The founder of all of this, Antonia Stone, who began the Playing to Win computer literacy and training program for prisoners and ex-offenders back in 1981, the Playing to Win community computing center in a public housing basement in east Harlem in 1983, the Playing to Win Network, PTWNet, which grew into CTCNet--she saw way back when that computers would become a basic social tool and that those without access to them and the education and training to use them effectively would become further alienated and disenfranchised from our basic culture and resources and that have-have not divisions would deepen into even greater social antagonisms with major social and political repercussions. A lot of that is reflected quite explicitly in the original PTW creed as it was developed in the 80's and carried into the 90's and 21st century. See, for instance, www.comtechreview.org/winter-spring-1998/r981miss.htm:

"Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) envisions a society in which all people are equitably empowered by technology skills and usage. CTCNet is committed to achieving this end.

"CTCNet shares with Playing To Win, its founding organization, a recognition that, in an increasingly technologically dominated society, people who are socially and/or economically disadvantaged will become further disadvantaged if they lack access to computers and computer-related technologies.

"CTCNet brings together agencies and programs that provide opportunities whereby people of all ages who typically lack access to computers and related technologies can learn to use these technologies in an environment that encourages exploration and discovery and, through this experience, develop personal skills and self-confidence.

"CTCNet offers resources to enhance each affiliated agency/program's capacity to provide technology access and education to its constituency and to help and nurture other like-minded programs in its area. CTCNet will facilitate telecommunications, print, and in-person linkages enabling members to benefit from shared experience and expertise.

"CTCNet will be a leading advocate of equitable access to computers and related technologies; it will invite, initiate, and actively encourage partnerships and collaborations with other individuals and organizations that offer resources in support of its mission; and it will strive, in every arena, to bring about universal technological enfranchisement."

Toni and CTCNet people did not invent the phrase "digital divide," but that's what the organization and the movement spoke to through the 90's as the phrase picked up currency during the latter years of the Clinton-Gore administration. It was a "Digital Divide" Request for Proposal (RFP) that the Corporation for National and Community Service issued in the spring of 2000 that led to the establishment of the CTC VISTA Project, the anti-poverty missions of VISTA and CTCNet coming together in the effort we are all involved with now.

Even then the phrase "digital divide" was starting to lose its currency and popularity, not only among those who tried to minimize the problem and say it no longer existed, but also among many of the strongest proponents of CTC programs and efforts that sought to provide greater technology resources and capacities for the entire nonprofit sector. The argument, so it goes, is that the phrase originated from the side of the "haves" and reflects neither the experience nor the understanding of the "have-nots" but rather a characteristic problematic we-have-the-knowledge-and-tools upper, upper-middle class patronizing attitude. In many quarters the phrase "digital opportunities" program has come to be used in its place. I personally value the phrase "digital divide" as it is one of the few expressions in public discourse that carries with it the sense that there are deep social divisions we need to address.

There's much more to be said in response to your set of questions--this seems like a good amount for now. -----peter

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Peter Miller -- CTC VISTA Project -- www.ctcvista.org

Comment from Kevin Bulger on February 7, 2007 - 5:54pm

Hi Peter,

I think it is important that the issues regarding the technologically under-served and under-educated be revisited, renamed, and reconceptualized every so often just to make the issue fresh and exciting to would-be funders. Otherwise this to happens.

The term "digital divide" carries weight because its simple, self-explanatory, and familiar. However, it is limited by its staleness; it evokes oversimplified solutions; and the term has become associated with superfluous luxury. Eveything has its pluses and minuses, I guess.